When I began backpacking in the early 1990′s, I used a Simon Stove, a small and sturdy stainless steel cooker which ran on denatured alcohol. Sometime around 1995, I made the switch to an MSR Whisperlite, a multi-fuel stove which could run on practically anything and seemed perfectly suited for my travels in developing countries; where options for camping stove fuels are often limited. After using the Whisperlite for the best part of a decade, in search of a lighter weight alternative, I came full circle and once again began using an alcohol stove. This time around it was a homemade, uber lightweight (9 grams) Pepsi can model. Simple, no maintenance and low volume, if any piece of equipment encapsulates the ultralight approach to backpacking, it is the homemade alcohol stove.
- How do they work?: Put in the fuel; light up; wait for the stove to prime; place the pot directly on the stove or on a pre-made stand; bring the water to a boil; add the food; stir (make sure you keep the pot steady) until the flame extinguishes; put the lid on the pot and let it sit for about 10 minutes (giving it a stir after 5 minutes). For purposes of insulation, it helps if you put your pot in a cozy, a wonderfully simple, lightweight invention which cuts down on both cooking time and fuel required.
- What fuel to use?: Denatured alcohol (methylated spirits) can be found in most hardware and camping stores. In the United States, it is also common to use gas line antifreeze (eg.HEET). In developing countries, the situation can sometimes be a bit trickier, but once you know what it’s called in the local terminology, there should not be a problem finding fuel. See the following link for a list of International Fuel names: http://fuel.papo-art.com/
- No simmering or temperature adjustment: For some hikers this is the primary negative associated with alcohol stoves. Your culinary options are thus limited to easy-to-prepare items that require little in the way of cooking. Possibly not the best option for “gourmet” hikers.
- Fuel Efficiency: Alcohol stoves are generally less fuel-efficient than other stoves, which means you will have to carry a little more fuel than you normally would. That being said, I have found the difference to be negligible in relation to the weight saved by the actual stove itself. In addition, by utilizing a pot cozy once the flame has extinguished, you go some way in negating any weight disadvantage caused by the stoves comparative lack of efficiency.
- Altitude/cold: I have successfully used my pepsi can stove at altitudes above 5000m and in temperatures well below freezing. Note that in extremely cold weather, your boiling times will be a little slower.
- How much fuel/how long to boil?: About 1 ounce (28 millilitres) is generally enough to boil half a litre of water. A little more when the water is colder. Boiling time for 0.5 litres is between three and four minutes.
- Buy or make it yourself?: Personal choice. They are relatively simple to make using recyclable materials. Alternatively, buy them online from companies such as Anti Gravity Gear www.antigravitygear.com, who have the alcohol stove making process down to a science.
- Do it yourself websites: http://zenstoves.net/Construction.htm & http://royrobinson.homestead.com/Cat_Stove.html
- Cooking accessories needed include: windscreen, cooking stand (many hikers use them; I tend to place my pot directly on my pepsi can stove), spork or spoon, bandana, lighter/matches.
- Simplicity: Other than the weight, or lack of it, the thing I like the most about alcohol stoves is the sheer simplicity of design. Unlike with other models, you never have to worry about mechanical parts clogging, malfunctioning or breaking. All of these factors equate to one less thing I have to worry about whilst out in the wilderness.